By now, you’ve probably seen the painting everyone in Denver’s talking about. It depicts a city cop as a Ku Klux Klan-style child killer.
Denver Public Schools hung the painting by a Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy 10th grade artist in a student art show at the city’s Webb Building. The police union went ballistic. And, in a move that seems to have been prodded by top city officials, the painting was taken down.
After the story broke Tuesday — just before the blizzard that left most of Denver homebound and glued to their devices — lots of folks had lots of time to weigh in on Facebook about hate speech and free speech and officer safety and police brutality and Mayor Michael Hancock’s awkward attempts at damage control.
Many empathized with police, who took offense at their portrayal as racist, trigger-happy kid-killers.
Many didn’t. After all, Denver law enforcers — and the officials who defend them even when their conduct seems indefensible — have offended many in the city with a long string of high-profile use of force incidents.
Last year, Denver Police killed 17-year-old poet Jessica Hernandez. Like all killer cops for more than a decade, the officers who shot the high schooler from the side as she apparently tried to drive away from them in a stolen car, were let off the hook.
After Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey justified her killing, the department changed its policy so shooting a person in a moving car would no longer be justifiable.
Hernandez’s peers across Denver’s and other school districts are well aware the police killed one of their own. Their ire over her shooting helped create a crisis of confidence for police who need to be trusted by youth to do their jobs.
There’s no doubt that images like the one displayed at the Webb Building make it tough for Denver’s Police Department to assure young folks its officers should be trusted.
The district claims the student artist opted to take it down because of the discomfort it had caused.
That account may well be true. Or it may very well be spin by city officials who, let’s just say, like to put happy slants on unhappy stories. Because the 10th grader’s identity hasn’t been made public, it’s unclear if removing the painting was, in fact, an act of self-censorship or whether she understandably caved to pressure from city officials who wanted the painting out of sight, pronto, without looking like they strong-armed her.
What is known is that Mayor Hancock, Chief Robert White and acting Superintendent Susana Cordova planned a meeting with the young student and her family. The meeting was cancelled because of the blizzard and as of this posting has not been rescheduled.
What’s also known is that it has raised more than a few eyebrows that the same officials who are so eager to meet with a girl who painted a scene about excessive force have steadfastly refused to meet with families of people its officers have hurt or killed in real life. It’s much easier, it seems, to snag the attention of city officials when they feel victimized than when they’re the ones doing the victimizing.
Hancock and his administration’s bafflement that a Denver youth might view cops as dangerous and racist is, in itself, baffling — especially considering the heated protests in Denver targeting killer cops and the national rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. One wonders if Hancock heard anything black and brown people were shouting at him when they commandeered the Martin Luther King Day parade from his control in January. Or if he has heard a rap or hip hop song in, say, the last quarter century. Or if he was even half paying attention during halftime at the Super Bowl (which he attended) when even Beyonce was crooning about excessive force.
Last year, activists poured red paint over a Denver memorial to fallen officers. Like the 10th grader’s painting, it was a blunt artistic gesture. But it was also illegal, which legitimately gave the rattled police union and rank and file officers something to rattle about.
But there’s nothing even remotely illegal about the painting making headlines this week. Nor, from a more academic point of view, is there much about it that’s surprising. Assuming the young artist knows basic facts about Denver history, she’s aware there’s a long context of violence by white police against young black and brown residents of the Queen City of the Plains. She likely also knows that a mayor with strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan once ran this town. In fact, a booming, resource-rich, mostly white neighborhood on the outskirts of black Denver is still named after Benjamin Stapleton, and Hancock’s administration has done nothing much to address discomfort about honoring Denver’s Klan past.
(Incidentally, Benjamin Stapleton is the great-grandfather of our current state Treasurer Walker Stapleton. Voters have kept that name alive in politics, too.)
Sober to Denver’s history of KKK leadership and police violence — especially against young people — why would the administration throw around its weight about a student’s art project?
Damage control doesn’t start by condemning teenage artists. It starts by condemning racism and violence committed in our city’s name. Mitigating damage starts not by silencing critics, but by fixing the problems.
A few months ago, Hancock, who’s Denver’s second black mayor, expressed his empathy for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as that city exploded because of what protesters called racist police violence. Hancock’s comments belied his loyalties, a fact not lost on Denver’s black clergy or on the city’s black, brown and young people whose opinion of him diminishes every time one of his officers kill one of their own.
“I’m greatly concerned about how this painting portrays the police,” Robert White, Denver’s first black police chief, said in a statement.
White doesn’t publicly express the same concerns when his corps of mostly white officers kill unarmed people of color. People like Jessie Hernandez, Ryan Ronquillo, Marvin Booker, Paul Castaway, Michael Lee Marshall and Paul Childs. Denver’s youth have grown up knowing their names and hearing again and again how police brutalized them, then walked away with impunity.
It’s no wonder that some kids — and many adults — are distrustful and furious. That distrust and fury are exactly what the student’s painting evokes and why Hancock and his minions are so afraid of it.
Taking it down won’t quell those feelings. Instead, it fuels them. And it makes the image that much more indelible.
See the Channel 7 story about it below.
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Photo credit: Channel 7 news video on Youtube.